Robert Brightwell junior’s Scientifick Amusement (1752): A Mystery Manuscript

Title page of Cotsen 34075

About twenty years ago Cotsen purchased this little manuscript bound in blue sugar paper boards from John Lawson, an English antiquarian bookseller and great collector in the field of the history of education.  The neatly lettered title page dated 1752 credits a Robert Brightwell junior as “author” when he was sixteen years old.  If Master Robert had bothered to write out the name of the town or house where he was living at the time, it might have been possible to make a positive identification in the genealogical reference sources.  There appear to be some more clues at the text, but they lead nowhere. ” Mrs. Allen My Dear Madame D” doesn’t contain enough information to attempt to identify them or if they had any connection with Robert Brightwell junior.

He must have been a  rather serious lad to have compiled and illustrated a “Useful Companion, containing Short & Necessary Instructions for Youth.” The section on astronomy is one of the longer ones in the first part.  In this opening, Robert carefully wrote out tables of the diameters of the planets and of their distance in millions of miles from the sun.

He also drew a diagram of the solar system as far out as Saturn with its rings and five moons (Uranus would not be discovered until 1781).  In the lower left-hand corner, he attempted a picture of an armillary or artificial sphere, which the Encyclopedia Britannica on-line defines as “an early astronomical device for representing the great circles of the heavens, including in the most elaborate instruments the horizon, meridian, Equator, tropics, polar circles, and an ecliptic hoop.”   A pudgy cherub holds up one hand and looks away from the fearsomely complicated machine.As you can see from this more detailed representation from an engraved plate from a 1748 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, the concentric metal bands in Robert’s drawing were not labeled.  The prospect of  finding space to write out in teeny-tiny letters all the names of the parts in such a small drawing probably seemed rather daunting.Robert seems to have been capable of finer work when motivated.  The section on geography was illustrated with tiny hand-colored maps of the continents, where he went to the trouble of designating longitude and latitude and drawing in rivers, seas, countries, and major cities.  He did run into some trouble in the map of Asia rendering the horn of Africa and New Holland (aka Australia) to scale.Neat  rows of shaded diagrams decorate the margins of the section on geometry.  They are placed opposite the corresponding definitions of solid figures–cube, cylinder, cone, pyramid, sphere, prism, scaleneous cone, etc.Feeling pretty certain that Master Robert was transcribing passages from printed books in his manuscript, I started searching distinctive phrases at random in the Eighteenth Century Collections Online.  The title “Scientifick Amusement” turned up once, in an Irish volume of periodical essays published in 1758.  It was used in the sentence “there are some concerns of greater importance to a human being than the most luminous conception of the full force of the thirteen cards in the scientific amusement of whist…”  The phrase “Platonic body” in the definition of a tetrahedron returned ten results, none  of the passages remotely similar to Robert’s. The preface is usually a good prospect for matching texts, but nothing turned up.  In the history of England, all I had to work with was bland sentence after bland sentence, as in this thoroughly uninspiring account of the reign of Richard III.So what was Richard’s goal in making this manuscript?  It’s possible that he was transcribing a text he  wanted to own, but could not afford to buy.  If this is the case, perhaps the book(s) he used will be digitized in the future and a second round of searching will lead to his sources.  Or he may have been copying out the contents for presentation to someone, but there is no mention of the intended recipient anywhere in the manuscript. The cryptic references to Mrs. Allen and My Dear Madame D on the final page seem to be in a different hand than Robert’s and they could have been added by a later owner.  A third possibility is that Robert was consulting several texts in order to compose an abstract of them in his own words, like the mad narrator of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub.   It all sounds rather laborious, but worthy in the days before photomechanical reproduction.

Whatever his motive for making the Scientifick Amusement, Robert reminds me of the hero of Jeffrey Taylor’s Harry’s Holiday (1818), who needed something to do during the summer break and decided to make a copy of Joseph Priestley’s enormous New Chart of History  even though his father warned him off the idea.  At least Robert’s project was manageable in comparison!

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